DOE to Investigate Whistle-blower Firing at Nuclear Plant

By Roy Maurer Mar 17, 2014

A U.S. Senate hearing on alleged retaliation against whistle-blowers who had safety concerns at a Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear-waste treatment plant in Hanford, Wash., prompted the agency to look into the firings.

The DOE’s Office of Inspector General will examine the circumstances around the firing of safety whistle-blower Donna Busche, the former manager of Environmental and Nuclear Safety at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, who was terminated three months after she filed a second whistle-blower retaliation complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The two lead senators on the contracting-oversight subcommittee questioned representatives of DOE; its chief contractor, Bechtel; and subcontractor URS Corp. about the safety culture, the whistle-blower process and allegations of retaliation at the Hanford plant.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., made it clear that the hearing’s purpose was not to adjudicate the specifics of the employer-employee dispute at Hanford but to ensure that whistle-blower protections are in place and functioning, especially at a site where a disregard for safety could have immense consequences.

“I don’t think anyone wants to be a whistle-blower,” said McCaskill. “Reporting your colleagues, who may be your friends, for actions that look like waste, fraud, abuse or a danger to others isn’t an easy decision for most people. And life after you’ve blown the whistle isn’t easy, either. But the job that whistle-blowers do is tremendously important and valuable. That’s why when courageous men and women feel compelled to speak out, we do not want to silence them. We want to give them a process that allows them to report that information without fear of retaliation.”

Latest Flap at Hanford

Busche’s retaliation charges are the latest development in a troubled, decades-long cleanup at Hanford, a former plutonium-production facility that created large amounts of nuclear material and radioactive waste beginning in the 1940s. When the last reactor was decommissioned, in 1987, the site contained two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste by volume—it’s the nation’s most contaminated nuclear-waste site—with 56 million gallons of highly radioactive waste contained in 177 failing tanks, many presumed to have leaked.

Busche worked for URS, a company tasked with building a vitrification plant that will transform the dangerous waste into glass for permanent disposal underground. Overseen by the DOE, the plant will be the first chemical-waste processing facility in the world that can separate and stabilize nuclear waste.

For years, critics have raised safety concerns at Hanford, including the potential for hydrogen explosions and uncontrolled nuclear reactions. In 2010 the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board expressed its fear about explosive conditions due to hydrogen gas generation within the tanks; others have alleged that radiation is seeping into the groundwater and nearby Columbia River. DOE officials at the hearing admitted that “many individuals in the past” raised the same concerns that Busche did, including Walter Tomasaitis, the plant’s manager of waste treatment plant research and technology, who also was fired by URS in 2013, allegedly for bringing up nuclear-safety concerns.

“These actions contribute to a strong perception—both within Hanford and outside of it—that the contractors and the Department of Energy are failing to put an adequate emphasis on creating a strong safety culture at Hanford,” McCaskill said.

Busche’s Charges

Busche joined the project at Hanford in March 2009. On Feb. 18, 2014, she was terminated for cause. She alleges that URS fired her because of concerns she began raising in 2011, including:

  • That the plant-design and safety-basis documents used to determine that the plant is safe for operation and meets nuclear and environmental safety regulations were noncompliant.
  • That Bechtel engineering failed to sufficiently integrate safety intothe plant’s design.
  • That the plant’s fire-safety systems are inadequate.
  • Being told by a superior not to conduct a hazards analysis she felt obligated to conduct.
  • That the tool to model hydrogen detonations in pipes was not sufficiently conservative or compliant.
  • That nuclear-safety calculations in the event of an accident at the facility were not sufficiently conservative.

She also alleged she was subjected to continued harassment, isolation, exclusion and unwarranted criticism before she was fired.

URS denied the retaliation allegations and defended its decision to dismiss Busche. “URS has a zero tolerance for retaliation against whistle-blowers,” said James Taylor, a general manager within URS’s energy & construction division. “We did not terminate Ms. Busche as retaliation against the nuclear-safety issues she brought up.” Taylor told the Senate panel that Busche was fired because of her conduct and “severe” behavioral issues.

Busche responded that “miraculously, URS found performance problems” after she began pointing out safety concerns. “We had no forum to raise our concerns other than to adjudicate it in court for six or seven years,” she said.

Where Can Employees Go to Vent Concerns?

Johnson wanted to know what actions employees can take to air their safety concerns. “What should someone like Ms. Busche do?” he asked. “What course of action should she be taking, and what kinds of protections are available to her in the Department of Energy?”

Matt Moury, deputy assistant secretary for safety, security and quality programs at DOE, answered with the ideal scenario: She should have brought her concerns to someone within her line organization at URS, who would then communicate them to the DOE, which should’ve tracked them, brought them to closure and communicated the closure of the issues.

Moury and representatives from Bechtel and URS testified that several forums exist for employees to raise issues, including:

  • The Hanford Employee Concerns Program, a confidential reporting mechanism.
  • The Project Issues Evaluation Report, a peer-review process for managing technical issues and opportunities for improvement.
  • The Differing Professional Opinion process, a formal forum for plant personnel to resolve questions and concerns about technical design. A “technically qualified and independent panel” reviews the disputed issues, explained Bechtel Vice President Michael Graham.

“Collectively, these represent a robust, best-in-class process for identifying and tracking and resolving issues and concerns,” he said.

“All project personnel receive extensive training and information on ensuring a safety-conscious work environment, which includes information on using these and other avenues to report and resolve issues and concerns.”

Bill Eckroade, deputy chief of operations at the DOE’s Office of Health Safety and Security, said the department has conducted two safety-culture assessments at Hanford and is planning a third. Its reports from 2010 and 2012 “found that most people interviewed were comfortable raising safety concerns, but a significant number said there was a chilling environment,” he told the Senate panel. He said safety and whistle-blower freedom at Hanford are a “high priority” and the DOE is taking actions there, such as instituting new onsite safety leadership, clarifying rules, revising contractor performance standards and improving department oversight.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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